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China, Japan and South Korea will sit down to talk Arctic tomorrow. They appear to keen to engage themselves in the region, and just as keen to keep themselves distracted from disputes locally
“Global change”, aka East moving towards North (Photo: Marc Lanteigne)

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There are any number of issues China, Japan and South Korea openly disagree on. The Arctic, it appears, is not one of them.

The three countries were most recently gathered, together with Canada, Russia and the US, in Korea, in March for talks about research on fishing in the Arctic. They have attended similar meetings with Arctic states in the past.

Tomorrow, Arctic officials from the three countries will gather alone in Seoul, for the start of what they described in November as “a trilateral high-level dialogue on the Arctic to share Arctic policies, explore co-operative projects and seek ways to deepen co-operation over the Arctic”.

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With such a bland lead-up, there is a danger that the most noteworthy thing about the meeting will be that it was held at all. Still, agenda points for these types of gatherings tend towards the diplomatically bland. It is better to set the bar low and make it over, the thinking goes, than it is to fail in plain sight.

Besides, more meetings are clearly intended: the countries are labelling it as the first step in laying the groundwork for their Arctic collaboration. In that respect, small first steps may be in order.

What drives the formation of an Asian bloc? Marc Lanteigne, back in December, suggested the motivation was two-fold. Firstly, an acknowledgement of the growing importance of the Far North to the foreign policies of north-eastern Asia. The eventual outcome of such an awakening, he suggested, could be the forum for policy co-ordination the three appear to be seeking.

Were the countries able to successfully get along in the Arctic, he argued, it could also build confidence to talk about issues of relevance closer to home, perhaps paving the way for closer collaboration on more divisive local issues.

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Possible areas of  focus when it comes to the Arctic specifically appear to fall into two categories: science and commerce.

The former is named explicitly as one of the topics of discussion for the meeting, and all three have nascent research interests in the region, though their activities there in some cases pre-date their acceptance, in 2013, as Arctic Council observers (part of a group of five Asian states – Singapore and India were the others – and Italy). Moreover, all three have accepted that the region’s climate is changing significantly and that this affects them. Working closer together here, moreover, would likely do little to set Arctic states at unease.

Commerce is not mentioned as a reason for the meeting. There may be various reasons for this, including differing interests in the region and concern about how a co-ordinated economic initiative would go down, or perhaps simply due to the state of the oil and commodities market at the moment. Still, all three countries have well-known economic interests in the region, including shipping, fisheries and energy (particularly imports from Russia), which are common for all three, and mining, which especially China and South Korea have pursued eagerly.

As their participation in the fisheries talks shows, they are also eager to sit down with Arctic states to come up with workable solutions for how they can pursue their interests in the region. It is perhaps the same sense of pragmatism that brings them together tomorrow, despite however much else might bother them.